Composting has been shedding its stereotypes. It’s not just for farmers, for suburbanites with a backyard, for gardeners, for the time-rich, for environmentalists, for other people. Over the last four years, there’s been a huge shift in the resources available, and I’ve loved (LOVED) watching it become more accessible, affordable, and much, much easier to finagle in a small space.
I’ve lived in an apartment since college, and I’ve composted ever since the second month of living on my own. I’ve used pick-up services, drop-off locations, lobbed squash stems in my parents’ backyard bin, and checked out friends’ vermicomposting and bokashi composting set-ups. It all works.
If you, too, live in an apartment and have wondered if composting might fit into your home and routines, here is a run-down on the small-space solutions out there. All of the methods assume you don’t have yard space, and some of them don’t even require scrap of balcony, deck, or basement space.
-Pick-up services: When I lived in Chicago, I used a compost pick-up service for four years, and LOVED IT. For $15-$25 a month, all I had to do was dump my scraps in a bucket that the service provided and haul said bucket down to the curb once or twice a month. And the haulers took care of the rest!
If you elect to go with a pick-up service, it’s worth doing a little research to make sure you like where your food scraps (and dollars) are headed. Providers should be transparent about the method they use to compost food scraps and where the finished compost ends up. Ideally, you’d want the compost to go to landscaping, farms, gardens, or back to customers, or perhaps fed to animals; some lower-quality compost ends up as landfill topper, which ideally the company you’re considering doesn’t support.
Now more than ever, there are so many pick-up services out there, often several options in any particular city. (You can search your area on the Where to Compost page). If you can afford it, choosing a pick-up service is a wonderful way to support what is most likely a fairly new sustainable business in your area, and it is possibly the very easiest way to make sure your food scraps end up as compost. (If you’re curious, more notes about pick-up services, and the answers to a bunch of FAQs, in this post).
-Drop-off spots: No pick-up services in your area, or no wish to spend twenty bucks a month on one? Try dropping off your compost somewhere near you! This is how we currently compost from our home in Madison: every few days, we empty our countertop compost into a five-gallon bucket we keep sealed on our patio. When that fills up every few weeks, we drive it a couple of miles over to a local food scrap collection site. (This summer we may try to figure out how to haul that bucket in a bicycle panier or trailer).
I keep a list of drop-off spots on my Where to Compost guide, but if there aren’t any listed in your area, it’s worth doing some further research yourself. What you’re looking for is not a little compost bin at your favorite coffee shop, of course, but a specific community space that welcomes your food scrap drop-offs. Check with local farmers’ markets, community gardens, urban farms, community centers, your local area on ShareWaste.com, or even with neighbors and friends. Some drop-off spots will charge a fee for deposits, but it’s usually around $5 or less, and many are free.
One thing I love about using our drop-off service is that by the very act of depositing scraps, we’re driving demand to keep it running. The bins into which we empty our food scraps here in Madison are often empty or nearly empty. It would be easy for the provider to think that nobody uses the service and to stop investing in it; by adding our scraps each month, we help ensure the continued existence and success of the program.
-Vermicomposting: Worms! If worms are fascinating to you, chances are this is the method for you. If worms are not fascinating for you and-that’s-putting-it-mildly, skip ahead. Vermicomposting uses a special breed of worms and a small collection of bins to break down food scraps right inside your house or apartment (my brother keeps his vermicomposting set-up under his kitchen sink). When I visited him in New York last fall, I was surprised to find that his worm bins didn’t smell like anything other than wet newspaper and that they fit out-of-sight in a small cabinet. If you’re curious about “vermiposting,” as it’s often called, learn more here.
-Bokashi composting: This method is new to me, but I got to see it in action last year for the first time at my friend Moji’s apartment. Bokashi composting uses bokashi powder, or “bran,” to break down food scraps more quickly than traditional composting does; for this reason, it’s great for very small spaces. This article explains more about it without trying to sell you anything.
-You can freeze your food scraps to buy yourself more time to deposit it in the location of your choosing.
-Each method above allows you to compost a slightly different combination of items; in the case of pick-up services and drop-off locations, this will also vary by provider. Make sure to choose one that fits the way you and your family eat. If you have lots of meat scraps, perhaps commercial composting with a pick-up service will be your best bet; if it’s all carrot tops and apple cores around here, seeing if your friend will let you deposit scraps in her backyard bin may be just the thing.
-You can try lots of methods to see how they work. Love your pick-up service but winnowing down your monthly expenses? Try to find a drop-off spot. Worm care not meshing with your travel schedule? Consider bokashi. You don’t have to compost the same way forever, and each method you try is one you get the chance to learn a little more about.
-Our compost bucket pictured here is a gift from EarthHero. We sometimes line our bin with these compostable liners, but more often we leave it liner-less and just wash it after we empty it. (Note: these links are affiliate links, if you’d like to support Litterless as you shop).
Questions about apartment composting? Hurdles you just can’t quite cross? Send ‘em my way, please.
More posts on composting, here.